Time to untangle the hair issue

30th May 2003 at 01:00
What is it about headteachers and boys' haircuts? What's going on? What dark forces make headmasters (in particular) lash out in helpless panic at the sight of an inventive male hairdo?

I never quite got over that fierce chap at the Blair sons' school who said - apropos of in-term holidays - that his priorities were "homework, haircuts and holidays" (but not, obviously, humour, history or humankindness).

Every year there are tales of exams disrupted and children pitchforked into war with the adult world over such uneducational issues as hair over the collar, pink and green stripes, bleached highlights or Mohican crests. And now we have a lad in Bootle, suspended from his lifeline to culture because he put his hair in dear little beaded braids like David Beckham. I have seen his picture and they're beautifully done, straight as a die, giving him the air of an exotic reptile with a ridged head. But yes, the inevitable happens: the school banishes him.

It is barking mad. And so are the newspaper readers who harrumphed in support of terrified authority. "No male child of any colour," said one, "should be allowed to wear his hair in this style to school." Others went further and agreed with the school's uncomfortably crypto-racist comment that it is "unacceptable for a white boy to have this hairstyle". Oh yeah? So, is it unacceptable for a black girl to go in for hair-straightening and a Diana flick, or for a black boy to model his appearance on Prince Charles? Get away. All you do when you come down heavily on a hairstyle is to inform the child that he is not an independent, decision-making, individual human being to you: just an Ikea unit that must match the other units.

There are, admittedly, certain "looks" that teachers mistrust because they are associated with yob culture. Heads flinch at skinhead shaves and crew-cuts, and I know one who falls into moral panic at the sight of those peculiar, thick-chopped "steps" over shaved napes. Long hair has sent shivers down the spines of many since the 1960s: though, interestingly, it is only in Britain (and to some extent in Germany) that the possession of male ringlets is associated with drug culture: the Dutch, Danes and Norwegians can't see the connection at all, and enjoy the Viking look. But the braided hairdo that caused uproar last week is not even associated with misbehaviour. David Beckham is a renowned athlete, devoted husband and hands-on father: a man who has visibly matured since his tantrum days, and proved himself a graceful loser and compassionate team leader at the World Cup. So why, O head, is it reprehensible to have a hairstyle like David Beckham, yet estimable to have one like Neil Hamilton or Jonathan Aitken? And what message does it send to a child when personal grooming is treated as if it were bullying or vandalism? It isn't even like piercings, which have a genuine safety implication in school. A lad with tight braids is fine in PE. Perhaps Beckham himself did it for aerodynamic reasons, so that he could duck faster next time Alex Ferguson aims a boot at him.

I think we have to untangle this hair obsession from the wider question of scruffiness. In fact, if schools stopped struggling to police hair, they could firmly tackle the more depressing aspects of pupils' appearance. A lot of schools with strict, even neurotic, hairstyle policies regularly spew out of their gates at four o'clock a dismal ragbag of trampish, untucked, scuffed and trollopy pupils. If you stopped fretting about hair you could concentrate on the more general aspects of grooming.

I'd rather have bottle-blondes than girls with natural hair in a curtain in front of their sullen faces, ruining their eyesight in class. I prefer louche or camp-looking boys who are clean and smiling to hunched scruffballs with short back-and-sides.

"OK, David, you can have hair halfway down your back if you like, as long as it's washed three times a week and tied back in a pony tail, the way the girls have to. Nathan, your braids are a good idea but the partings are crooked. I want to see them straight tomorrow. Julianne, your roots are showing. And all of you, stand up straight, smile at visitors, clean your shoes and do up your buttons while you're in uniform."

I shall get booed for saying this, not least because I am a governor of a school where boys' hair has to be short enough to go under a naval hat for parades. But come to think of it, there's no earthly reason why a matelot shouldn't have Beckham braids; and if the long-haired boys wear hairnets or French pleats like the girls, I'd bear it. Or they could have tarred pigtails, like real Nelsonian lower-deck heroes. Hair is not a crime.

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